by Celia Ringstrom
Words become a dysfunctional, contradictory, confining, and frustrating medium of expression for me when I try to convey my thoughts, experiences, and memories of Palestine. When asked by a friend if I was enjoying myself in Palestine, I couldn’t respond. I wasn’t not enjoying myself but I also felt weird saying that I was enjoying myself. I later realized that it was impossible to describe because our feeling adjectives are singular and about the self. What “I was feeling” wasn’t what I actually was feeling. It was much more communal than that, and our language has no vocabulary for these sorts of feelings. Witnessing conflict, trauma, violence, war, and death has a way of erasing the borders between what I feel and what you feel. This is why I have instead attempted to show rather than tell what I saw, through an assortment of photographs. These photographs, though easier than words, also harbor their own faults. Through photography I invaded and occupied the personal space of others, sometimes without their verbal consent. To say I didn’t struggle with my immoral actions would be a lie. Yet some feelings, thoughts, and histories become visually shrouded in awareness. Though this still might not be justification enough, which I completely understand as well, these feelings, thoughts, and histories are crucial in the conveyance of the unspoken human language of suffering and oppression (from both ends of the spectrum). Both written word and photographs instill myself as the dominant force in the narrative, skewing objectivity and proliferating self-centeredness, but photographs do so, I believe, much less. Also I feel that it is photographs that are the strongest propagators of empathy, a crucial tool in an asymmetrical war and ethnic cleansing not taken seriously by so many in the world. I hope that through these photographs, I can relay the lack of self I felt so strongly and be able to give others an understanding of something almost impossible to capture in the English language.
The contrast shocks and contradicts. The eye twitches back and forth as it tries to decide what to grasp. There’s the electric, other dimensional, yet simple beauty of the patterns and colors dominating the right side of the photograph, seducing the aesthetic-ravenous senses. But the utter destitution and patchy mosaic of a street suffocated by oppression and war stuns the hidden current of liquid emotion running deep in the passageways of your compassion. Can one truly grasp both of these realms at the same temporal moment without total confusion and guilt? This is Hebron and this is the reality of Palestine: the total contrast of beauty and horror in the same conscious thought.
A different scene in Hebron does not have the visual contrast so much as the conceptual contrast. This destitute “ghost town” or any ghost town for that matter has an all encompassing aura of decay and doom. Yet somehow, someone somewhere managed to overcome the debilitating physical and mental state of living in an apartheid system and bestow the simple message, “hope”, on an area that seems anything but hopeful.
A cage for a street. This is one of the numerous corridors that interconnects to comprise the Hebron market. The situation is so dangerous for those living in Hebron that they are forced to cage themselves to avoid trash, rocks, and weapons being thrown at them by the settlers living above. This is a contrast between the freedom of the open air above and the forced self imprisonment of the grates beneath that freedom.
A less obvious contrast, but a contrast nonetheless, there is the neutral image of an apple core statue in an art exhibit on the right, and the unsettling presence of IDF soldiers in a space usually divorced from such company. This space of what should be artistic freedom is instead prostituted as a weapon of indoctrination and propaganda. During my visit, this museum was overcrowded with IDF soldiers, outnumbering regular civilians about 10 to 1, if i want to be conservative. Thus the picture does little justice to the real demographic of this museum while I was there. I found that the contrast in this photograph was expressed in what should be the freedom and beauty of artistic expression against figures that symbolize the theft of any sort of freedom and beauty, the IDF.
This is a photograph depicting one of the numerous murals painted on the occupation wall separating Bethlehem from Israel. The ability to produce art from something so ugly, so nefarious in purpose is an amazing feat seen repeated in various contexts in occupied Palestine. Here contrast is a form of non violent resistance.
Instruments of death positioned next to the ultimate symbol of life, water. In this context, however, it is because these two symbolize opposites, death and life, that one dominates the other. Israel has been using water discriminatory policies to deny Palestinians control over their own water resources since the beginning of the occupation of the West Bank. Yet another weapon to further displace and marginalize Palestinians from their land.
This is the Dead Sea. The contrast here is more so visual: the expanding salt banks sucking up what’s left of the ghostlike haziness of the Dead Sea. The various lines drawn on these banks represent the numerous times Israel has stolen portions of the sea for water and for minerals, putting the unique ecosystem at risk, an ecosystem that by international law does not rightfully belong to Israel.
The image on the right of a proud father beaming in absolute happiness towards his child and ultimate gift of life, almost cancels or denies any negative question as to what those gleaming canisters of silver could possibly represent, resting ever so gently on a casual, empty bottle of water. Art perhaps? A toy of sorts? No, these are a miniscule fraction of the numerous bomb and tear gas canisters collected by Iyad Burnat on his olive tree farm, who is the smiling father and leader of Bil’in’s non violent struggle against the illegal confiscation of Palestinian land. These seemingly non-lethal canisters are not limited to just destruction. Iyad explained how a week previously, during one of their non violent protests, one of his good friends had been shot in the chest by a tear gas canister and died a couple of hours later. Do not let naivety convince you that this was an accident. Once again beauty and horror are juxtapositioned to force the imagining of such a shocking contrast.
This photograph I will explain plainly. There is a playground full of children in the lower left hand corner and a skunk water canyon on the margins of the occupation wall in the upper right hand corner. This cannon has been used and will most likely continue to be used for testing on the children that were or will be in this playground. In other words, chemical warfare is used on Palestinian children to intimidate and terrorize them. The beauty of innocence contrasted against the horror of creative violence.
I’ve decided to end this series of photographs not with another mentally taxing image of contrast, but instead, a reified message of hope. I took this photograph in Hebron, seeing the very hopeless look on the face of this small child and the irony of her standing in front of a big “HOPE”. But now, instead of seeing an image of total contrast, I see her presence as the actual hope which is merely suggested through symbols behind her. Despite the deteriorating situation of Hebron and many other cities in Palestine, Palestine survives through its children. But Palestine also can only survive through the proper education of our children. We need to revolutionize the way we see this very asymmetrical war so that our society wakes up to the harsh reality of the Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestine and finally stands up to Israel.